Military cinemas provided respite for soldiers on the front line

Soldiers marching past a cinema in the First World War. Credit: Chris Grosvenor/University of Exeter

Cinema-going was so popular among troops serving in the trenches in the First World War that thousands regularly packed into bombed-out buildings near the front line to watch the latest films, new research shows.

There were double the number of military cinemas on the Western Front than previously thought and the extent of film-watching by troops during 1914 to 1918 has previously been overlooked by historians.

The makeshift cinemas, in abandoned town halls, barns, purpose-built huts or simply in the open air, were often only a few miles behind the trenches.

Soldiers were assigned roles as projectionists or to secure the latest releases from film distributors back home, and often managed to put on screenings three times a day despite having to work in basic conditions with equipment prone to failure.

The study is a result of years of analysis of documentation and diaries by researcher Chris Grosvenor, from the University of Exeter.

Injured soldiers watching a film projected onto a ceiling. Credit: Chris Grosvenor

Ticket prices

  • 30 centimes for enlisted men

  • one franc for officers

Soldiers were most interested in watching slapstick comedies starring early icons like Charlie Chaplin, but other genres and types of films made their way to the front.

Mr Grosvenor said: "For soldiers the cinema was not a disposable or arbitrary way to spend their free time, but a much needed psychological respite from the immediate dangers of trench warfare: a cathartic, morale-boosting release from the ever-present, impending aura of doom that permeated life on the front lines."

They were frequently dismissive of topical fiction or documentary films depicting the war itself, such as the famous documentary The Battle Of The Somme.

The researcher added: "Soldiers often approached these types of films with caution, mocking the overly sentimentalised, censored, or even staged scenes which could never compare to the reality of what soldiers experienced on a day-to-day basis."

"Soldiers could be silent and rapt during the beginning of films, and during love scenes.

"But they would boo and hiss if they saw a villain, and cheer for a happy ending. These screenings were often accompanied by the ever-present sound of gunfire and shelling."

Cinema-going took place during rest days. It was common for a soldier to spend only two weeks in the trenches, alternating every four days or so between the front line and reserve trenches, followed by six days leave in a rest camp further back behind the line.

Soldiers were assigned roles as projectionists or to secure the latest releases from film distributors back home. Credit: Bill Douglas Cinema Museum

Reports describe 300 men queuing to get into a venue where the capacity was 200.

Other evidence shows 1,190 officers and men attending one packed showing, with no space to fit others queuing outside.

There were also mobile cinemas so films could be shown in remote locations and often in the midst of towns and villages which served as rest areas for British troops.

Some of the military cinemas could not remain constantly open, as divisions traded equipment, were relocated elsewhere along the front, or because there was no time or manpower.

Mr Grosvenor said: "At first many of the films shown to soldiers in the makeshift cinemas were old.

"But this changed as the war progressed. Deals were struck with film distributors to supply the latest films.

"There was even an 'Army Film Depot' near Dunkirk, where films were stored."

Many fixed cinemas relocated frequently as soldiers were moved along the front line and proceeds from entrance fees were used to pay for the costs of running the cinemas.